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The Value Of Russia, Putin To Trump


As we said earlier, we are spending this hour trying to understand and digest what happened at the summit in Helsinki - President Trump seemingly deferring to Vladimir Putin and undermining U.S. intelligence about Russian interference in the elections. Mr. Trump subsequent invitation to Putin to visit Washington has raised still more questions about why he seems to have such an affinity for the Russian leader. To try to answer that question, we've called Tim O'Brien, author of "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." He has reported on Donald Trump for years, and we should note was sued by Donald Trump for libel. A judge dismissed that lawsuit. And Tim O'Brien is with us now.

Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

TIM O'BRIEN: Hi, Michel. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So let me just first get your reaction to last week's events. What stood out to you?

O'BRIEN: I think the first thing that stood out to me, Michel, was that there was absolutely nothing new in what he was saying at that conference. He's been saying exculpatory things for Vladimir Putin's behalf for the better part of a year, at least. He has tried to explain away the Russian government's attempt to sabotage the 2016 election for the better part of a year, and he's denied that he and his political team played any role in any of that. And I think the key difference in that conference was he was saying it on global television, in front of a global audience, and Vladimir Putin was standing right next to him while he slagged the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities.

MARTIN: So there is one explanation for this. And that explanation is that Donald Trump simply can't tolerate the notion that anyone had anything to do with his victory but him. So let's just set that aside and ask the other side of the question, which is, does President Trump have some sort of affinity for Russia, and, if so why?

O'BRIEN: Well, there's no question that Donald Trump has an affinity for autocrats. I think he likes the idea that you can assume power and exercise power in an unfettered and completely unconstrained way. And I think that explains the kind of fascination he has for Xi, in China, for Kim, to a certain extent in North Korea, and certainly, certainly for Vladimir Putin.

MARTIN: So that's one motivation perhaps a psychological dynamic, if you will. But you also mentioned his business dealings. Now, you wrote a piece in Bloomberg this week calling on President Trump to release his tax returns. Now, we should say that because of his lawsuit against you some years ago, you were able to see his tax returns. Now, you can't talk about them under court order, but why did you write that piece? I mean, what do you think the tax returns would tell us about the president's relationship to Russia?

O'BRIEN: I think this touches on a moment at the end of the press conference on Monday in Helsinki when a reporter with the Associated Press directly asked Vladimir Putin and Trump about whether or not Russia had compromising information on the president - and Trump looked down at his lectern and sort of shook his head and smirked, and Putin chuckled. And then he went on to say well you know we have thousands and thousands of business people who come through when we simply don't have the time to collect information on all of them. This is a nonissue and you should just forget about it.

But the reality is I don't think we should forget about that because the president has had business intersections with people with organized crime ties, with Russian business people who have been career criminals, with organized crime ties as recently as just a few years ago. And I think the question we should - we need to ask ourselves as citizens and observers is this, does the Russian government, or cutouts, or representatives for the Russian government have any financial leverage over the president because of possible financial relationships he had with them over the years? And in that context, the president's tax returns touch on very central national security and public interest questions.

MARTIN: Now, we should say that President Trump has stated categorically that he has no businesses in Russia - or no loans from Russians, although his sons have said Russians invested in Trump businesses. And I hope I have that correct. Now, are you implying that the president's been less than candid about his financial relationships?

O'BRIEN: Well, I mean, the president is routinely less than candid, to put it politely, about a lot of his business dealings and his statements. What I'm talking about is in the public record.

MARTIN: The president has, throughout the week, gotten quite a lot of criticism including from traditional allies in the conservative media who are normally very deferential to him and yet he's now gone ahead and invited Vladimir Putin to Washington. Why do you think that he's doubled down so to speak?

O'BRIEN: When people look at what appear to be to us these catastrophic behavior where he just keeps doing things that he is criticized for or things that upset his advisers, I think at a very basic level one of the reasons President Trump does whatever he wants to do is that he's been insulated his whole life from the consequences of his own mistakes. When he was a young man, he grew up in a wealthy family. He later became a celebrity, and now he's the president of the United States. And each of those locations in his life have allowed him to have padding around bad behavior, mistakes, ill-considered actions that most other people in life learn from.

We all make mistakes. We try to address them and grow through them. He really hasn't. He's very much stuck in his own reality, and he does what he wants to do. And he has clearly decided that he wants to forge a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin despite what everyone around him, including his own staff is saying.

MARTIN: That's Tim O'Brien, author of "TrumpNation: The Art Of Being The Donald." He's executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, and he was kind of to join us from our studios in New York. Tim O'Brien, thank you so much for speaking with us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.